Analysis Cable biz Fidelity Communications has been forced to admit it was behind an astroturfing campaign against a city-run fiber network in America's Midwest.
The campaign, titled Stop City-Funded Internet, started last month with a website and accompanying social media handles, and has been a persistent critic of efforts by West Plains, Missouri, to expand its homegrown broadband network to include more businesses and even residential customers.
Who exactly is behind the campaign has been the subject of intense interest with the campaign's main website revealing only that it was funded by "a collection of fiscally conservative Missourians."
However one enterprising local – videographer Isaac Protiva – was able to uncover the truth: cable company Fidelity Communications, which offers internet access in five states including Missouri, and boasts 115,000 customers. The ISP had paid a marketing outfit based in Arizona to carry out the campaign.
How did he figure it out? The marketing company screwed up when it named materials on stopcityfundedinternet.com. Specifically, two images on the site were spotted revealing Fidelity as a client. Incredibly, one was the site's main header image, called Fidelity_SCFI_Website_V2.jpg. The second image was on a privacy page, and was hosted on a server called fidelity.dmwebtest.com. Talk about a smoking gun.
That server's domain name led back to DM Web Dev Group, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, owned by marketing veterans Martin Lakin and David Ammerman.
So, about that...
Protiva documented his findings in a YouTube video at the end of January, and incredibly it prompted a formal response a few days later from Fidelity to the campaign's Facebook page – although there remains no mention of the corporate funding on the anonymous campaign website nor Fidelity's own website. The images have since been replaced to remove any mention of Fidelity.
"There has been a tremendous amount of conversation about the ownership of this page," the post declared, with this letter attached. "Today we offer what we hope will provide some clarity via an official statement from Fidelity Communications about their support of our efforts in promoting a conversation about city owned Internet in West Plains."
The unsigned letter began, "We would like to take this opportunity to respond to questions we have received about our stance on the City of West Plains’ launch of internet services as a ‘public utility'," before launching in a rundown of how the company feels it has been badly treated by the city of West Plains.
It argued, using the Citizens United Supreme Court logic, that "first and foremost, we are a citizen of West Plains, and we, like each of you, want West Plains, its residents and businesses to grow and prosper."
But it waited until the last paragraph to admit that the cable company is behind the campaign. It read: "In an effort to reach out to the public and to tell the other side of the story, we have engaged a third party to launch and maintain a 'Stop City-Funded Internet' Facebook page and related stopcityfundedinternet.com website."
Responding to the letter on his own Facebook page, Protiva noted: "My job here is done."
This is far from the first time a cable company has run an astroturf campaign against potential competitors. However, the the risk of exposure from doing so has prompted many to go a different route, and use lobbyists to reach lawmakers to kick start legislation that makes it much harder for municipal networks to get up and running.
In the case of West Plains, however, the ISP was up against city administrator Tom Stehn, who appears to have played things by the book and was savvy enough to have enlisted congressional support for his city's broadband plans. Stehn is also an engineer, which may explain why the municipal network has not run into some of the same problems similar projects in other cities across the nation have encountered.
Back in December 2015, the city decided to build its own municipal fiber network after a survey of local businesses revealed that they were unhappy at the quality and cost of their internet connections. Some firms were paying three times the amount for similar connectivity available in nearby cities.
The letter from Fidelity Communications referenced that disquiet, and noted that "the city and the Broadband Study Group expressed concern that we weren’t providing service in a few areas, we weren’t offering one Gig service… and that we were charging special construction charges to reach certain businesses."
It argued: "We acknowledged and addressed those concerns. We agreed to serve any business within the city limits without charging any special construction costs. We have also increased speeds to all of our business customers several times, without charging additional fees. Moreover, we upgraded our equipment and facilities to provide one Gig service throughout the entire city limits."
It went on: "In December of 2016, we met with the city and asked if there was anything else we could be doing? They said 'No,' and indicated they were satisfied with our services."